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Archive for July 31st, 2012

zadie smith goes elliptical, anti-evental

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Related to the conversation that spawned my previous post, someone told me that he thought Zadie Smith’s new story (paywall, sorry) in The New Yorker was the best thing that she’s done so far. I’ve just read it, and I agree.

It’s written in an elliptical form, as a series of short numbered paragraphs, and this, I think, is part of what permits Smith to sidestep some of the problems of her previous works. Smith discusses her use of this form, which she calls a “sectional form,” here:

Well, the story is an extract from a novel, and this sectional style only appears towards the end of the book. When I was writing the book I was trying to think about how we experience time. How it really feels to be in time. And the answer ended up being different depending on who or what I was dealing with. In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice.

To put what she’s getting at (I think) about “time” and “how it feels to be in time” into my own words: Whether the novelist wants to or not, conventional narration gives itself not just continuity but (somewhat but not really) paradoxically, the failure of continuity, the emergence of the ostensibly new. That is to say, narrative continuity provides itself in order to be broken, to serve as the staging grown for the discontinuous event. And then one day, something unforeseen happened…

The story plays from the start with the idea of events and eventfulness. The first lines read:

There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect. Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, the protagonists in the event, were four-year-old children.

Now, discontinuous events of this sort – and in general –  and the changes that they inaugurate in the line of their stories, are often sites of ideological mystification disguised as romantic aesthetics. (If you want to read someone playing expertly with this, take a look at David Lurie’s speech to his academic bosses in Disgrace. “Eros entered. After that I was not the same.” The “event” is the alibi that is meant to explain away – or refuse to explain away – all else that has happened, the presence of motive, etc…)

And in the case of Smith’s story, the “sectional” form of the narrative opens it by the end (not going to give it away) to a fundamental revision – a revision both of the story, the nature of its central character, and the romantic ideology that is serving as a blind for the cold determinism running underneath. It as if the story says to its own protagonist:

You had the sense that you were living life in accordance with the patterns and principles of romantically-tinged romantic fictions, complete with those moments of coup de foudre in which one position as if magically, but at least spontaneously, gives way to another. That is to say, you believed that your live was structured by events: you randomly meet this person, that happens, you meet another person, and so on. This ideology is the elipsis that haunts even the most conventional of narratives. But it was not so: a logic – the logic of comparison that is at base the logic of capitalism – was running the show, your show, all along.

At any rate, I’m interested to see how this all works in the novel from which this story is extracted. As she says in the passage I quoted above, this form only comes in at the end of the book. What would it mean for a novel to evolve or devolve into this?

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm

female writers, writing, etc

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Following up from the post above about Amy Sohn’s piece: had a discussion last night about why it had been difficult for me to find novels written by females for a specific (but not all that specific) syllabus that I taught from last year – and why it might be the case that that was so. (More specifically, this conversation last night was provoked by the fact that students who took this seminar have taken it upon themselves to run their own seminar / reading group during the summer focused on female authors of the same period as the mostly male authors that we handled in mine… According to reports they’re not unhappy with me, understand why I assigned what I did, we’ve talked about it at length, but still they want to do more – and I’m glad they are.) Some of it may be that the specific aesthetic itself that we were dealing with in the seminar is gendered (and that it was a gender-driven choice on my part to centre on it in the class). This is worthy of discussion – and discuss it we did.

But something else came up that’s interesting too: the institutional, structural reasons why female writers’ careers tend (NB – by tend I mean tend – there are lots of exceptions!) to follow certain paths and not others. There are both active and passive, or positive and negative reasons why women don’t tend to write a certain sort of novel. On the one hand, there are of course roadblocks and prohibitions: old boys clubs – or even young boys clubs, preconceptions about who is suitable to write what, and of course all the psychological baggage that comes of growing up and being educated and everything else as a female rather than a male.

But on the other hand – I think this is just as interesting – female writers careers are shaped (in the context of this discussion, misshaped) as significantly by the carrot as by the stick. In other words – and if you’ve spent any time with a female freelance writer trying to make it on the American scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about – there are paths that young female writers are encouraged to follow by everything from article pitch acceptances to book contracts. The form that this encouragement takes is shaped by a nexus of ideology, taste, readership, but most importantly money and markets. And no one forces female writers to follow these paths – but they often are the paths of least resistance, and in a hard world, sometimes frictionless movement forward is undeniably appealing.

To put it another way. No one, in general, wants a tell-all / roman à clef about a guy’s sex life – let alone to write the sort of Carrie Bradshaw style column that leads to one of those. With a few notable exceptions, there’s not much demand for the “my life as a dad” style book either, where as mommy-centric stuff seems to be one of the true perennials of the book trade. I could be wrong – and in fact I have the slightest bit of evidence that I might be – but I have a feeling that a male version of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation wouldn’t work – or at least receive the PR explosion that it did when it came out over here – if written by a man.

Or to put it again yet another way: take two would-be freelancers in their 20s living in Brooklyn during the 2000s, one male and one female. Perhaps both want to write highbrow pieces about international affairs, the state of American culture, domestic politics, whatever. Both of them receive rejection after rejection when they try to do so. Of course they do – they are too green, there’s lots of established experts in those fields, they haven’t yet built up the CVs and the contacts, whatever. But the female of the pair discovers that yes, there is a market for a piece comparing her life to Carrie Bradshaw’s. It’s a throwaway, but it builds her publication list, so she takes the shot. There’s not really an equivalent slot for the guy to fill, so he turns instead to a PhD, writing a long, recondite literary novel, whatever. Meanwhile, for the female, one thing starts to lead to another – the article to an appearance on television to discuss SATC, the television appearance to a series of other related articles, and one day, after being coaxed into writing a particularly spicy piece by a magazine contact, a book contract about, well, some sort of equivalent of the Sohn thing I discussed in the previous post. The guy on the other hand likely gets nowhere, or becomes an academic, or perhaps, if he’s both good and very very lucky, releases his monstrous tome and ends up a rising light of the “literary fiction” scene.

Super-reductive, all of this, I know. But in practice – with countless variations – I’ve seen it turn out this sort of way lots and lots of time. There are highbrow versions of the same phenomenon: the smart woman who writes smart stuff for the right places, but smart stuff that always requires her to insert herself into the piece in some sort of slapsticky manner, the point of what she’s after constantly receding behind a wall of Cuteness and Funniness. And so on – but for another day.

Please don’t misunderstand. There are both good and bad reasons why these “paths” develop for women, but what I am trying to get at is the way that they can in many cases be formative – shunt talented people into some success, but success that in the long run settles on a plateau of mediocrity or even obnoxiousness. In Cusk’s case for instance – and despite the fact that I liked the bits that I read of Aftermath – one really does wonder if a writer of her talents isn’t wasting her time doing this sort of thing. Making a bit of money, yes, but wasting her time when she could be doing better work. Maybe she will next – or maybe she’ll write a follow-up to this book that got her a full-spread in the culture section of every Saturday paper in Britain a few months ago.

At any rate, and for now, let this stand as my attempt to explain part of what I was trying to get at yesterday – the way that one can feel the interpolative (and ultimately mediocritizing) forces at work shaping a piece of writing like that…. And of course, there are so many things here that need more attention: what I mean by “better” work, the ways that strong female authors game with the expectations I’m describing, what happens to female authors who, to borrow a term, “opt out” of this structure, and the somewhat translucent parallel expectations that exist for men….

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 31, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in gender, writing